FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Peter Jennings and the End of an Era

The New York Times' editorial obituary notes the symbolic significance of the death of ABC News anchor Peter Jennings this past Sunday. Along with the retirement of NBC's Tom Brokaw and CBS's Dan Rather, the troika of post-Cronkite network anchors -- and the media era they represented -- is no more:

Mr. Jennings, who died on Sunday at the age of 67, is being remembered as someone who would use his considerable clout to get a news report on the air from some faraway place that Americans had never heard of, or one that could be hard to look at or difficult to understand. He leaves behind a world in which network news operations are less well financed, less powerful and less likely to send an expensive team of cameras and producers to cover an overseas story. While the nation will adjust to a world without superstar network anchors like Mr. Jennings, it can ill afford the loss of someone with his kind of influence behind the scenes.

While we mourn the loss of the man, not all will mourn the loss of the media era he represented. Jeff Jarvis, who regularly blogs about this topic, says (in a post not related to Jennings) that traditional media are not only obsolete, but unnatural:

The natural means of interaction and of sharing information is, of course, conversation, through the ability to ask and answer questions, to impart and collect knowledge. I'm not one to make allusions to primitive life as if that describes the natural state of man, but I will in this case: When you listened to the tribe storyteller, you could remix before passing on; when you heard from the town crier, you could stick your head out the window and ask for details; when you set the price of a good or service, you got to haggle with the seller. This is why Socrates said that education is a conversation, and why Luther said that prayer is a conversation, and why Cluetrain says that markets are conversations, and why I say that news is a conversation. That is the natural order of things.

Media changed that. Media made society one-way.

But now the internet drains the one-way pipes of media and pours us all in the same pond together. The internet enables conversation. [Emphasis added]

The stark contrast between the news organizations of the past and today's information reality was seen during the London subway bombings in July. There, the first (and most powerful) images came not from network camera crews, but from individuals who happened to be on the scene... and who happened to have cameraphones. Earlier this year, the images of the southeast Asian tsunami broadcast over and over on news broadcasts came from vacationers shooting the unfolding travesty with their personal video cameras. Instead of the top-down news direction that Jennings personified, the future of news appears to be coming from the bottom up.

Of course, network news will go on after Peter Jennings. Yet technology is undoubtedly changing the way we gather and process information. The world is surely a bit poorer by losing Jennings' nightly take on world and national events. The big question now is: what will we turn to to enrich it again?

UPDATE: Anchors as father figures? Read another take on the passing of the Jennings/Brokaw/Rather era here.